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Vermeer of DelftPainting and Illusionism
The Art of Painting  Technique and Conservation
Art and HistoryThe Painting's Afterlife

The Art of Painting

Detail of Clio from The Art of Painting

The Art of Painting holds a special place within Vermeer's oeuvre. While it displays all the captivating characteristics of his artistic genius -- a carefully observed seventeenth-century Dutch interior illuminated by softly diffused light, exquisitely painted details, and a frozen moment imbued with psychological depth -- it stands apart from his other works in its imposing scale and pronounced allegorical character.

The picture's personal significance to Vermeer is evident from the fact that it apparently remained in his possession from the late 1660s, when it was painted, until his death in 1675. Even though the family was left in dire financial straits, the painting was not sold. On 24 February 1676 Vermeer's widow, Catharina Bolnes, transferred ownership of the work to her mother, Maria Thins, to keep the picture out of the hands of creditors. The legal document drawn up at this time provides the title of the work: "a piece of painting [by] her Late husband in which was depicted The Art of Painting [De Schilderkunst]." Unlike the descriptive titles usually given to seventeenth-century paintings, this title focuses on the picture's meaning, an indication that the image represents far more than an artist at an easel, depicting a woman dressed as Clio, the muse of history. The title also indicates that Vermeer incorporated the other significant compositional elements -- map, tapestry, and chandelier -- to help convey his conviction about the meaning and significance of the art of painting.

The issues Vermeer addressed here were not new. Ever since antiquity artists and theorists had sought to define the qualities and ideals paintings should include, and the significance they held for human beliefs and understanding. Concurrent with these concerns were questions about the artist's place in society, whether he should be considered a craftsman, on a par with carpenters and goldsmiths, or a creative genius, such as poets and philosophers. Finally, commentaries on the visual arts always imparted an awareness of the enormous fame brought to a city or a nation by its artists.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Clio, etching, from Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, published 1678, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

Although these intellectual ideas belonged to an established tradition, Vermeer's own interpretation was innovative. Rather than using a single allegorical figure to embody his theme (see Painting and Illusionism), Vermeer chose to present his allegory in the guise of an everyday scene that takes place in a recognizable room filled with objects. The artist is dressed in an elegant costume, which elevates him beyond the social level of an anonymous craftsman. The distinctive doublet, decorated with slits across its back and arms, is similar to garments worn on special occasions in the early to mid-seventeenth century, perhaps to enhance the painting's historicizing character.

The artist observes his model, who is dressed as Clio, the muse of history. As he records her image carefully on his canvas, he is not so much the recipient of the muse's inspiration as the agent through whom she takes on life and significance. Clio wears a crown of laurel on her head to denote honor, glory, and eternal life. In one hand she holds a trumpet, which stands for fame, and in the other she clasps a thick folio, perhaps a volume of Thucydides, which symbolizes history. These were the attributes ascribed to her by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia, a sixteenth-century book of emblems and personifications that was widely used by artists. It also became a source for theorists, among them Vermeer's contemporary, Samuel van Hoogstraten, whose treatise of 1678 contains an image of Clio almost exactly as described by Ripa, with book and trumpet in hand.

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